By the time we got up to the scenic mountain town of Huaraz in Peru’s Ancash province, I was already feeling the effects of the elevation. Since rising from sea level to more than two thousand meters a couple of days earlier, I hadn’t been able to sleep. Insomnia is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness, along with nausea, headaches and loss of appetite. I was beginning to wonder how I’d cope with the road ahead, which would take us over a pass nearly 4900 meters (16 000 feet) tall in Huascaran National Park.
In Huaraz, we stayed with Ivan, a local mountain guide and all round great guy who we met through couchsurfing.com. We pitched our tent on the roof of his small house were therefore literally right at home. I slept through the second night and eventually got my appetite back. I made up for lost meals by eating all the ceviche and excellent 1 sole (30¢) ice cream cones I could find. Since cevicherias and ice cream stands line Huaraz’s crowded streets, I was good as new in short order.
We teamed up with cyclists Matt and Greg before making our attempt on Huascaran. Greg started riding from New York about 10 months ago, and Matt, who we’d met in the Casa Ciclista in Trujillo, set out from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, last summer. For the first time in a year, we rode as four. We made good progress as we rose up to the puna (high alpine grasslands) on secondary dirt roads and camped at about 4000 meters. It was clear that Matt and Greg had a faster pace than ours, and we enjoyed each other’s company before bidding adieus the next day.
The morning rose bright, cheerful, and frosty. We started out after a leisurely breakfast. The one-lane dirt road didn’t look too steep or rough, but it felt as though someone had turned up the gravity. We were fighting to keep the bikes pointed straight, riding at around 4 kilometers per hour. Every time my front wheel came up against something larger than a small pebble, I had to push with all my diminished might to keep my handlebars from jackknifing. More than once we had to get off and push. My head pounded as every meter gained seemed to equate with a loss of strength and focus. Every minor effort sent my pulse racing as though I’d just pulled off an explosive sprint.
That night Lucie and I “slept” between two peaks directly under a glacier, at about 4700 meters, the lowest point we could get to before sundown. I know I slept because I had dreams – about 100 of them, lasting no more than a few seconds each. By morning, I felt dried out, and my aching head was full of cotton. Lucie was in even worse shape than I was. I made her a strong coca tea and prepared breakfast with our sputtering stove set on flamethrower (apparently gasoline doesn’t burn so well above 4000 meters). All the water that we hadn’t brought into the tent was frozen solid. We were both in slow motion. The only cure was to descend. But we still had nearly 20 kilometers of climbing ahead before reaching the highest point on our route.
I managed to get us on the road by about 10 a.m. I’m at a loss to describe the kind of effort required just to get the bike upright. There was nothing to do but point our machines up the mountain and push on the pedals. We each fell into a meditative trance, taking in the occasional stone huts of seasonal shepherds, the improbable llamas, and eventually endless chains of peaks locked in eternal ice. It was nearly freezing and the unobstructed wind numbed our faces. We were dressed in our full Yukon outfits for the first time in almost a year.
Once we inched our way over the summit in the early afternoon, the road mercifully descended. It got warmer. My skin stopped tingling, and my mind steadily cleared. Eventually our dirt track intersected with a serpentine road of fresh, smooth, black pavement, and we were treated to an endless high-speed downhill. Our tires hummed as we hugged the corners, and our bodies regenerated in the oxygen-rich atmosphere. By the time we’d hit 3600 meters in the tiny town of Huallanca, I felt like Superman.
The world at the top of the Andes is lonely, beautiful and haunting. It’s impossible for me to separate its spare yet awesome force from my physical sensations of oxygen depravation and extreme exertion. Climbing over the pass was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, mentally or physically, and the experience is one I’ll never forget.